Music lovers seek to make north-central West Virginia a hotspot for jazz.
Eric Spelsberg and his jazz-loving friends used to complain about having to drive to big cities to hear the artists they loved. Then they changed their tune.
The group—which organized as the West Virginia Jazz Society in 2008—realized all the jazz cities they loved had something in common. New York City, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., are all within easy driving distance of north-central West Virginia. “The road goes both ways,” says Spelsberg, the society’s president.
Each of those scenes have different sounds. Atlanta is known for soul jazz, a genre influenced by R&B. New York is known for its hard bop, a more aggressive, free-flowing sound.
That, in the mind of Spelsberg and his friends, gives north-central West Virginia an advantage. By meeting in the middle, jazz fans can hear it all in one place.
The society began hosting concerts around the area and then, a few years later, introduced a different kind of event to Clarksburg. At the inaugural Uptown Jazz Stroll, held in June 2013, the society scattered jazz bands at several venues around town. That way, instead of having to sit in one theater or club and wait to hear the act they wanted, music lovers could personalize their experience and hear the artists they wanted for as long as they wanted. It proved so popular, the society started similar events in Elkins, Morgantown, and Weston.
“The more oppurtunity we provide people to be exposed to jazz, the better it goes.”Eric Spelsberg
Last October, the group founded Pink Ribbon Concerts to promote breast cancer awareness and support Mon Health’s Neediest Cases Fund, which covers extra expenses such as childcare and lodging for women undergoing treatment for breast cancer. “Having breast cancer is tough enough. To have to have these other struggles doesn’t help your prognosis,” Spelsberg says.
The concert series will return for a second year in 2019. On October 7, The Jakobs Ferry Stragglers with Libby Eddy at Thyme Bistro in Weston. The Pennsylvania-based band plays traditional bluegrass—which isn’t jazz, of course, but isn’t far off. “Jazz and bluegrass share a spirit of improvisation,” Spelsberg says.
On October 11, the society will bring internationally recognized jazz vocalist Sharon Clark to the recently renovated Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center in Clarksburg for a tribute to Nat King Cole. “The stage is actually bigger than many of the venues we regularly book, so we’re going to have a show on the stage,” Spelsberg says. The audience will be seated at cocktail tables and on risers in the orchestra pit. “It’s gonna be a lot like Austin City Limits, where the artists are in close proximity,” Spelsberg says. And, like Austin City Limits, the concert will be filmed for later broadcast.
On October 15, El Gran Sabor in Elkins will host The Boss Ladies, an R&B trio led by Rachael Franks and, on October 18, the Preston County Arts Center in Kingwood will host The Gracie Metheny Band. Metheny is a 15-year-old country singer and guitar player from Elkins who has been performing since she was 5.
The society will also host its annual Holiday Jazz Stroll in Clarksburg on December 3. But this year, instead of taking place only downtown, the musical acts will be scattered across the whole city. And, coming in March 2020, the group is putting together a statewide tour for Dr. Monica Herzig and the SHE-roes, a New York jazz band featuring “some of the absolute top women jazz players anywhere,” Spelsberg says.
The West Virginia Jazz Society’s hope to make the north-central part of the state a jazz hotspot is coming true. “We’re almost to the point where, in this region, if you want to go out and hear good jazz any night of the week, you can do it,” Spelsberg says. “The more opportunity we provide for people to be exposed to jazz, the better it goes.”
But Spelsberg demurs when asked to predict where it will go from here. “When guys sit down to play a jazz song, they call a tune like ‘My Funny Valentine.’ They know that song, but they don’t know where it’s going to end up. Same with us.
Photos courtesy of the WV Jazz Society.